Danny DeVito’s “THE RATINGS GAME” and the October Surprise Debate

Sunday, October 2, 2016

“THE RATINGS GAME” – Danny DeVito’s Minor Masterpiece and the Donald Trump Surprise Debate of October 25

One of my colleagues at CSULB, Charles Webb, has written a score of poems that seem likely to become pedagogical models of “Stand Up Poetry,” a mode he has promoted in several influential anthologies. Webb, however, is not the person who coined the term. Inspired by the title of Edward Field’s collection of poem, “Stand Up, Friend, With Me,” Gerald Locklin and Charles Stetler applied the term to a post-Beat, “reader-friendly” kind of poem that emphasized humor and popular culture. Among Webb’s best known poems is a paean to “low culture” art in which Webb bemoans (in a straight man fashion) his inability to recall the important signifiers of canonical literature and culture, and instead cackles with self-satisfied pleasure as he recalls the art that truly matters to him, which features nothing other than low, gross humor. On the surface, Webb’s rhetoric is beguiling; upon re-reading, one discovers its flaw in leaning too heavily on inductive logic. Nevertheless, it is a charming example of Webb at his best.

The narrator of Webb’s poem is a fringe-niche consumer of mass industrial culture. His protestations of a preference for low culture are dourly undermined by his acknowledgement of the social expectations of his imagined persona as a cultivated individual. While analysis of Webb’s poem calls for taking this ambiguous tension into consideration, the allegiance to low culture that the poem accentuates is at the heart of any media-based target audience. As ripe as that subject might be for comic display within popular culture, few efforts have been truly successful. One exception is Danny DeVito’s “The Ratings Game,” which came out in 1984. It is a minor masterpiece in its satire of corporate culture’s manipulation of the status quo.

The protagonist of “The Ratings Game” is an amateur auteur in the fullest sense of the term. Vic DeSalvo, played by Danny DeVito in his first directorial effort, is a successful businessman who yearns for cultural status, but is rebuffed by the Hollywood crowd. Undeterred by his initial failures, DeSalvo manages to get his cartoon show a slot on a nationally syndicated broadcast schedule. I haven’t seen this movie, which was a cable television project, for over 30 years, and yet I recall with a smile on my face — as wide as that of Webb’s narrator — the moment in which Established Power smirks at Underlings: “Congratulations,” the network executive says to DeSalvo, “your show will premiere on October 10, (pause) the first night of the World Series.”

To put it mildly, DeSalvo knows he is doomed. With bottomed-out ratings, his show will not likely make it to the second month, let alone a second season. DeSalvo won’t give up without a fight, however, especially after his fiancé, Francine (played by Rhea Pearlman), reveals how “ratings” are actually determined. As the victim of sexist politics in the office, she has no qualms about getting revenge, and they set about plotting to humble a system stacked against them.

I mention “The Ratings Game” (which has finally been released on DVD) because the current schedule of debates between presidential candidates includes an evening featuring the alternative choices of Jill Stein and Gary Johnson. The Free and Equal Commission has organized a debate to which all prominent candidates have been invited. The likelihood of Trump and Clinton both showing up for this debate and thereby according minor party candidates an appearance of being on an equal footing is about the same odds as the Chicago Cubs asking me to pitch the first game of the upcoming playoffs.

However, as I wrote this post, Trump’s habitually asymmetrical strategy gave me pause: might not Trump show up? It would be a couple of hours of free publicity in which he could harangue Jill Stein as the “real” Hillary Clinton, the “alternative” who represents the socialist agenda that lurks behind Clinton’s policy-driven campaign. Next to Johnson, of course, Trump would seem like a foreign policy maven, a wonk ne plus ultra. What’s to lose? Well, I suppose that Fox Sports would resent any distraction from one of its crown jewels, but the White House is at stake, and that requires sacrifices from all interested parties, doesn’t it?

By now, of course, you’ve guessed what Trump’s misfortune would be in choosing this “alternative” debate as a surprise outlet for his fulminations. Yes, this debate is scheduled for the first night of the 2016 World Series (October 25). Good luck, Ms. Stein. I can’t wait to see the Cubs finally begin to break the longest drought in American sports.